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Has the CIA Been Politicized?

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Anonymous leakers at the CIA continue to make claims about Russia and the 2016 election. In response to demands to provide evidence, the CIA has declined to offer any, refusing to meet with Congressional intelligence committees, and refusing to issue any documents offering evidence. Instead, the CIA, communicating via leaks, simply says the equivalent of "trust us."

Not troubled by the lack of evidence, many in the media and in the Democratic party have been repeating unsubstantiated CIA claims as fact.

Of course, as I've noted before, the history of CIA intelligence is largely a history of missing the forest for the trees. Sometimes, the failures have been spectacular. 

One of the questions that immediately arises in the media in situations like these, however, is "has the CIA been politicized?"

When used in this way, the term "politicized" means that the CIA is involved in helping or hurting specific political factions (e,g., specific ideological groups, pressure groups, or presidential administrations) in order to strengthen the CIA's financial or political standing.

All Government Agencies Are Politicized

The use of the term, however, rather naïvely implies that it is possible for a government agency to not be politicized. A non-political government agency, it is assumed, acts without regard to how its actions and claims affect its political standing among powerful interests in Washington. Such an agency has never existed.  

Indeed, when a government agency relies on taxpayer funding, Congressional lawmaking, and White House politics to sustain itself, it is absurd to expect that agency to somehow remain not "politicized." That is, it's a logical impossibility to think it possible to set up a government agency that relies on government policymakers to sustain it, and then think the agency in question will not attempt to influence or curry favor with those policymakers. 

This idea might seem plausible to school children in junior-high-school civics classes, but not to anyone who lives in the real world. 

In fact, if we wish to ascertain whether or not an institution or organization is "politicized" we can simply ask ourselves a few questions:

  • Does the organization depend on a legal monopoly to accomplish its mission? That is, does the organization benefit from a government prohibition on other organizations — especially private-sector ones — doing the same thing? 
  • Does the organization depend on taxpayer funding for a substantial amount of its budget? 
  • Was the organization created by government legislation? 
  • Are senior officials appointed by government policymakers (i.e., the President)? 
  • Does the organization engage in what would be illegal activities were it not for protective government legislation? 

If the answer to any of these questions is "yes" then you are probably dealing with a politicized organization. If the answer to all of these questions is "yes" — as is the case with the CIA — then you're definitely dealing with a very politicized organization. (Other "non-political" organizations that fall well within this criteria as well include so-called "private" organizations such as the Federal Reserve System and Fannie Mae.)

So, it has always been foolish to ask ourselves if the CIA is "politicized" since the answer is obviously "yes" for anyone who is paying attention. 

Nevertheless, the myth that the CIA and agencies like it can be non-political continues to endure, although in many cases, the charge has produced numerous helpful historical analysis of just how politicized the CIA has been in practice. 

Recent Narratives on CIA Politicization 

Stories of CIA politicization take at least two forms: One type consists of anti-CIA writers attempting to illustrate how the CIA acts to manipulate political actors to achieve its own political ends. The other type consists of pro-CIA writers attempting to cast the CIA as an innocent victim of manipulation by senior Washington officials. 

Of course, it doesn't matter whether the provenance of CIA politicking comes from within the agency or outside it. In both cases, the fact remains that the Agency is a tool for political actors to deceive, manipulate, and attack political enemies. 

With CIA leaks apparently attempting to call the integrity of the 2016 election into question, the CIA is once again being accused of politicization. Consequently, articles in the Washington Times, the Daily Caller, and The Intercept all question the CIA's motivation and present numerous examples of the Agency's history of deception. 

The current controversy is hardly the first time the Agency has been accused of being political, and during the build up to the Iraq invasion in 2003, for example, the CIA worked with the Bush Administration to essentially manufacture "intelligence." 

In his book Failure of Intelligence, Melvin Allan Goodman writes: 

Three years after the invasion of Iraq, a senior CIA analyst, Paul Pillar, documented the efforts of the Bush administration to politicize the intelligence of the CIA on Iraqi WMD and so-called links between Iraq and al Qaeda. Pillar accused the Bush administration of using policy to drive intelligence production, which was the same argument offered by the chief of British intelligence in the Downing Street memorandum prior to the war, and aggressively using intelligence to win public support for the decision to go to war....Pillar does not explain why no senior CIA official protested, let alone resigned in the wake of the president's misuse of intelligence on Iraq's so-called efforts to obtain uranium ore in Africa. Pillar falsely claimed "for the most part, the intelligence community's own substantive judgments do not appear to have been compromised," when it was clear that the CIA wa wrong on every conclusion and had to politicize the intelligence to be so egregiously wrong."

Since then, CIA officials have attempted to rehabilitate the agency by claiming the agency was the hapless victim of the Administration. But, as Goodman notes, we heard no protests from the Agency when such protests would have actually mattered, and the fact is the Agency was easily used for political ends. Whether or not some agents wanted to participate in assisting the Bush administration with trumping up evidence against Iraq remains irrelevant. The fact remains the CIA did it.

Moreover, according to documents compiled by John Prados at the George Washington University, "The U.S. intelligence community buckled sooner in 2002 than previously reported" and that "Under the circumstances, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the CIA and other intelligence agencies defended themselves against the dangers of attack from the Bush administration through a process of self-censorship. That is the very essence of politicization in intelligence."

In other words, to protect its own budgets and privileges, the CIA reacted quickly to shape its intelligence to meet the political goals of others. 

Journalist Robert Parry has also attempted to go the CIA-as-victim route in his own writings. In an article written before the Iraq War debacle, Parry looks at how the Agency was used by both Reagan and Clinton, and claims that what is arguably of the CIA's biggest analytical errors — repeatedly overstating the economic strength of the Soviet Union — was the result of pressure applied to the Agency by the Reagan administration. (Parry may be mistaken here, as the CIA was wrong about the Soviet economy long before the Reagan Administration.)

While attempting to defend the CIA, however, Parry is merely providing a list of the many ways in which the CIA serves to manufacture false information that are useful for political officials. 

In this essay for the Center for International Policy, Goodman further lists many examples of politicization and concludes "Throughout the CIA’s 60-year history, there have been many efforts to slant analytical conclusions, skew estimates, and repress evidence that challenged a particular policy or  point  of view. As a result, the agency must recognize the impact of politicization and introduce barriers to protect analysts from political pressures.  Unfortunately, the CIA has largely ignored the problem."

It is difficult to ascertain whether past intelligence failures were due to pressure form the administration or whether they originated from within the Agency itself. Nevertheless, the intelligence failures are numerous, including: 

The fact that politicization occurs might help explain some of these failures, but simply claiming "politicization" doesn't erase the legacy of failure, and it hardly serves as an argument in favor of allowing the CIA to continue to command huge budgets and essentially function unsupervised.  Regardless of fanciful claims of non-political professionalism, it is undeniable that, as an agency of the US government, the CIA is a political institution. 

The only type of organization that is not politicized is a private-sector organization under a relatively laissez-faire regime. Heavily regulated private industries and all government agencies are politicized by nature because they depend heavily on active assistance from political actors to sustain themselves. 

It should be assumed that politicized organizations seek to influence policymakers, and thus all the actions and claims of these organization should be treated with skepticism and a recognition that these organizations benefit from further taxation and expanded government powers inflicted on ordinary taxpayers and other productive members of society outside the privileged circles of Washington, DC. 

Ryan McMaken is the editor of Mises Wire and The Austrian. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre. Contact: email, twitter.


Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is executive editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public policy and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities and Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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